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Animal & Veterinary

Spotlight on Large Animal Veterinarians

By Kelly Roy, Center for Veterinary Medicine, FDA

This year is World Veterinary Year, affectionately known as Vet2011. It is a year to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of the world’s first veterinary school in Lyon, France.1 In this celebration of the veterinary profession, we recognize that not all veterinarians spend their days in an animal hospital exam room. With over 70 million pet dogs and 80 million pet cats in the U.S., many Americans think of their local animal hospital, a tiled room and an exam table, when they think of their veterinarian.2 But there are also veterinarians who travel daily, through all types of weather and at all hours of the day (or night), to make sure that large animals are healthy too. Someone has to make sure that the animals that can’t sleep inside the house are healthy; that’s where large animal veterinarians come in.

The day-to-day work of large animal veterinarians can vary a great deal. There are equine veterinarians who only treat horses, and may spend their days at a ranch, stable, or racetrack. Then there are veterinarians who keep the elephants, tigers, and gorillas at the zoo healthy. There are large animal veterinarians who spend their time on farms caring for cows, sheep, goats, pigs, llamas, and alpacas. Some large animal veterinarians care for a mixture of all of these types of animals.

Did you ever think about what happens when an alligator gets injured? Someone may call a large animal veterinarian, and the veterinarian just may have to perform surgery on the sharp-toothed patient. What about when a cow is having trouble giving birth? Not just anyone can deliver a calf in the middle of the night on a farm. Large animal veterinarians serve an important purpose and can fill multiple roles.

Large Animal Veterinarians in the Federal Government

Veterinarians bring invaluable experience to the federal government. Large animal veterinarians serve in various government agencies, from NASA to the National Zoo; but a large number of them work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and some work right here in FDA and CVM. Some large animal veterinarians who serve in the federal government actively take care of animals as a regular part of their jobs. However, there are a wide range of duties that large animal veterinarians in the federal government can perform on a daily basis that draw on the knowledge and experience they gained in practice. You can read more about what types of work veterinarians do in the federal government in the article, Federal Veterinarians at Work.

Practicing large animal veterinarians play an important role in protecting human and animal health by keeping large animals healthy, and therefore helping to maintain the safety of the food supply. While there are equine-exclusive veterinarians, other large animal veterinarians find themselves treating a range of animals. The veterinarians who spend a lot of their time on a farm may treat various food animals such as cows, pigs, or goats. On the farm, veterinarians vaccinate food animals against disease, treat food animals when they are sick, and consult with farmers on production practices, feeding, and housing practices.3 Veterinarians who work with food animals are not just responsible for the health of the individual animals or herds, they also have to make sure that the food that comes from those animals is safe for people to eat. When a cow or a goat gets sick, large animal veterinarians provide treatment and ensure that the milk and meat from those animals are safe for people to consume.

Large Animal Veterinarian Shortage

According to American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) 2010 market research statistics, in the U.S.:

  • Approximately 6 percent of veterinarians specialize in equine veterinary medicine,
  • Less than 2 percent of veterinarians practice exclusively on food animals,
  • Just over 6 percent of veterinarians practice predominantly on food animals, and
  • And 7 percent of veterinarians have mixed animal practices.

In comparison, over 67 percent of veterinarians in the U.S. practice exclusively on companion animals (i.e. dogs, cats, and other small animals).4 Unfortunately, recent years have seen a shortage of large animal veterinarians entering the workforce. Various government entities, organizations, and rural communities, are pushing to increase the number of large animal veterinarians in this country. A major concern associated with the shortage is the lack of veterinarians relative to the amount of livestock in the U.S.

With the growing push for a better national food safety system, there is a need for veterinarians who have large animal veterinary medicine expertise and who can work with food animals. There are counties in the U.S. where there are greater than 25,000 food animals and no food animal veterinarians. These areas are most common in the central U.S.5 Studies also indicate that there are not currently enough veterinary medicine students who are specializing in food animals to meet the need.6 In response, several state governments and the USDA have recently passed legislation to provide financial aid or incentives to veterinarians. Many of these programs specifically provide financial assistance to students specializing in large animal or food animal veterinary medicine, or who will work in practices that provide a mix of services including food animal veterinary medicine. These programs could lead to a growing number of veterinarians taking their stethoscopes out onto the farm.

So, in this World Veterinary Year, we recognize the important and difficult work done by large animal veterinarians. They often brave inclement weather, travel long distances on country roads, and risk being kicked by animals that weigh far more than they do, to ensure that these animals are healthy and that food that enters the food supply from these animals is also safe. Would you have what it takes to perform surgery on a half-ton animal?

1 Vet 2011 icon
2 AVMA U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook icon
3 Bureau of Labor Statistics icon
4 AVMA Market Research Statistics: U.S. Veterinarians – 2010 icon
5 AVMA Food Supply Veterinary Medicine: Veterinary Shortage Maps icon
6 USDA NIFA Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Federal Register Notice

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